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Redesigning Our Elections

Sept. 30, 2016

About three months ago, I was invited by friends to spend the day at the Trump National Doral Golf Club in Miami. The enormous resort is a recent Trump acquisition, and it includes the sights we have grown accustomed to when we see Trump speaking at one of the gold-plated venues that bears his name: marble is everywhere, there are endless photos of Trump displaying his exaggerated gestures, and an abundance of shiny metal speaks loudly for a voice that may not be there in person, but shouts as you turn every corner. One of the highlights of the reception area at Doral, where guests enter to check into the hotel, is a framed photo of Trump who looks at you indignantly, daring you to challenge the décor and putative luxury that envelops what the property’s website describes as “one of the most exceptional golf resorts in the world.” This is, without a doubt, design, but it is autocratic design, and does not offer other voices beyond Trump’s own shrill pronouncements.

Design, as the scholar Gui Bonsiepe reminds us, “is a media event.” In our contemporary world, designers often articulate the need to solve deeply complicated, global conundrums, but too many designers focus their time on what Bonsiepe calls “boutiquization,” the covering
up of substance with surface. This sleek veneer negates the possibility of real political debate related to democracy and lures us further into a world where consumption forces design to do little more than promote further consumption. Indeed, Trump himself is a master of this type of manipulation, constantly shifting and surprising the media in a way that garners attention by mixing consumer spectacle with the political process. These machinations are good for the corporate bottom line, for gaining votes, and perhaps for selling “Make America Great Again” hats, but they disallow any type of meaningful participation, as they act like a type of siren’s song, enticing us to ignore how things, people, and communities actually function.

Think of the political rally as the manifestation of this type of designed spectacle that moves voters away from true participation. The rally, whether given by Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, is a well-designed event replete with flags, perfectly chosen music, and adoring fans carefully situated to surround the candidate like a worshiping mass of supplicants. This hyper-designed event becomes an acceptable and lauded form of voter participation in the United States in 2016, as the media appears to coo gently at the candidates, leaving the electorate at a loss when it comes to discerning the differences between genuine issues and mere spectacle.

What the electorate needs is less of the staged rally—less of the media-driven campaign—and more participation in the political process. We need, in other words, less show and more substance. The question is, as in any political season, will voters want to engage in a democratic process that demands real participation? And is participation possible in a system that makes the skimming of the surface a media event played on an endless loop?

Design has tried to help voters become engaged, through organizations such as Nonprofit VOTE, but more can be done. A modified form of what is sometimes referred to as co-design would move us away from the spectacle of the election as a media event and nudge us toward a more sustainable future. After all, elections, much like design, are all about what’s next. Co-design, when done well, negates the idea of one master designer—or one autocratic leader—making every decision about what “we” need. Instead, co-design asks that those constituents affected by decisions take part in the process. In the marketplace, co-design demands that consumers, or end-users, become active stakeholders in what gets made. In the context of the electoral process, co-design would mean that all voters could become more involved through questioning and suggesting ideas. Co-design, led by voters, would mean that we become less beholden to the current model where we all too often act as mindless receptacles of the well-produced election spectacle.

The electoral process should be redesigned to be more participatory, and less focused on campaigns financed by the few. It is all too clear that there is a direct link between funding a campaign and political access. This correlation privileges small numbers of voters and further disenfranchises the majority of the voting public. Supreme Court decisions, such as the 2010 Citizens United case, have only furthered the problematic correlation between money and politics. Money can now flow freely into campaigns in a way that enables the loop of the media spectacle to repeat endlessly, further removing voters from campaigns that seem to be so distant from their actual lives. This is why so many Americans felt the “Bern” so strongly in our current election cycle, as Sanders vociferously argued that money corrupts the system in terms of who has meaningful entrée into the political process.  And yet, it could be argued that Sanders, like Clinton and Trump, was quite adept at using the spectacle of the political process to his own advantage, even though his well-polished image is much more beholden to a seemingly grassroots sensibility.

Besides the taint of campaign money, there is also a rising tide of political machinations that have attempted to disenfranchise segments of the population based on racial gerrymandering and spurious claims of “voter fraud” that require unfair amounts of “evidence” from the voter to cast his or her vote. This exclusion of votes, which is linked to nefarious design projects such as poll taxes and literacy tests, tied to a long history of American racism, needs to come to an end.

Let’s get beyond exclusionary practices and design a form of voter participation that will foster more access through venues, such as widely held open town halls (not organized by the current party system), electronic voting, and less exclusive events where candidates could meet with and talk to their constituents regardless of the size of a check. These tactics would enfranchise more voices. American voters would feel less distant from what has become a system corrupted by money, favoritism, and other forms of privilege.

Beyond who wins in November, I see the presidential contest in 2016 as a clarion call for the way in which co-design, led by voters and not by a select few with deep pockets, could enable a new civil society, where conversations about our futures lead us beyond our current obsession with simply watching and acting like disenfranchised recipients of screen-based stimuli. We need to redesign our political process and move away from our apolitical obsession with sanctioning politics as a mere media event. We must get beyond the autocratic model of design that defines our current election cycle’s over-reliance on privileging the few at an enormous cost to the many.

David Brody teaches at Parsons School of Design. His new book, “Housekeeping by Design: Hotels and Labor,” will be published this fall by the University of Chicago Press.

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